I said good-bye to a friend this week. I’d been with this friend for a couple of years. Had good times and bad. But a few weeks ago I had a falling out with this friend it was time to go.
That friend was named SmugMug. It is a very popular photography sales site. But a few weeks ago, late on a Friday night heading into a holiday weekend, SmugMug announced that it was going to effectively double it’s prices for hosting sites that were selling pictures. The reasons for doing this seemed to be either a moving target or a poor job of communicating (see their original post or their follow-up post a week later).
But what I finally got out of their attempts to explain why it was necessary to double their prices was that the cost of maintaining their storage network and the associated inbound and outbound bandwidth was killing them. And I understand their pain. Honest, I do. I work in the IT industry. I also understand that the size of images has gotten exponentially bigger in the last few years and as flash memory has gotten cheaper and cheaper photographers are making more images. I get it.
But photographers like me, a weekend hobbyist with less than a gigabyte of space being used was not the cause of their problems. Heck, there are many wedding photographers who were putting up that much in pictures for a single wedding.
Yet rather than being smart about things (if they were being true as to the reason for their price increase) and allowing for multiple levels of pricing based on how much true load that their customers were placing on the system, they instead put a one-size-fits-all approach to things. At $150 a year, I could justify the hosting and the bells and whistles that came with SmugMug. At $300, I couldn’t and won’t.
Truth in advertising… the rise in prices wouldn’t have affected me this year. My renewal date was before their October 15th deadline. This year it would have cost me only $150. For existing customers they were offering the renewal for $250 rather than $300. But to continue with them was only putting off the inevitable. Anything I did to improve my little space on their site this year would be for naught by next year because I sure as heck wasn’t going to pay $250 or $300 to renew next year. And given the radical increase this year, how much were they going to raise it by next year? No thanks. I’m done.
And the way that they went about publicizing this was, at best, lacking integrity and care of their customers. Their explanation in some of their comments is that they always do their blog posts on Friday and this was no change to their normal business practices.
The reality is that when you make an announcement like this late on a Friday, especially with a clientele base that is working hard over the weekend somewhere other than in front of a computer, is that you’re trying to sneak this in when nobody is looking. A business that was honest and forthright, one that truly cared about their customers, would have announced a radical change such as this either earlier in the week or during normal business hours.
Additionally, it should have been more responsive to customer inquiries and complaints. Instead, the only responses you saw from SmugMug staff were from comments made that were supportive of the move.
Is this a friendship that is done and gone? For now, yes. For me to consider SmugMug again would require their adoption of a tiered approach to their pricing that made it possible for emerging professionals and hobbyists to sell images at a reasonable price that reflected the true cost SmugMug rather than the current one-size-fits-all that they have adopted. If indeed storage and bandwidth was the big drivers, then make a tier at about the 5Gb level for hobbyists and emerging pros. Charge maybe a letter higher percentage commission on prints that are actually sold. Rename to Pro level to Working Pro and continue to offer the all-you-can-eat storage.
If I had to guess, I’d say there were other issues in place that they’re not talking about that led to changes. I’m guessing part of it comes down to paying for customer support personnel. Small accounts probably use more tech support time than they’re making back in commissions off their prints and other things. And often the smaller accounts are from folks who are not as tech savvy and have more questions. I get that.
If I also had to guess, there was probably some pressure from working pros who are getting undercut on prices by the stay-at-home parents and weekenders who have picked up photography as an additional source of income to do things like team photography, senior portraits, and the like. Adding additional costs to these part-timers may convince some of them to either raise their prices or push them out of the business. It seems like the working pros were the ones who were commenting the most in favor of the increase in prices.
Regardless, I’m done with SmugMug. I’m pursuing a couple of potential new places for my stuff to land. I expect I’m going to have some extra time on my hand (yes, singular) in the next couple of weeks so I’ll do some research while I’m busy not being busy. I have a leading contender (Zenfolio) who offers what I used at SmugMug for less than what I was paying, but I’m still looking around.
Good-bye SmugMug. I enjoyed my time with you. I’m sad we can’t be friends anymore. But you’ve changed. Radically. And I can’t handle the change.